Outlander

Author: P Hana

Page 15

   

There was a large brown glass jar in the front containing several suspicious-looking balls, and in view of Beaton’s recipes, I had a good idea what it might be. Turning it around, I triumphantly read the hand-lettered label: DUNGE OF HORSES. Reflecting that such a substance likely didn’t improve much with keeping, I gingerly set the jar aside without opening it.

Subsequent investigation proved PURLES OVIS to be a latinate version of a similar substance, this time from sheep. MOUSE-EAR also proved to be animal in nature, rather than herbal; I pushed aside the vial of tiny pinkish dried ears with a small shudder.

I had been wondering about the “slaters,” spelt variously as “slatters,” “sclaters,” and “slatears,” which seemed to be an important ingredient in a number of medicines, so I was pleased to see a clear cork-stoppered vial with this name on the label. The vial was about half-full of what appeared to be small grey pills. These were no more than a quarter-inch in diameter, and so perfectly round that I marveled at Beaton’s dispensing skill. I brought the vial up close to my face, wondering at its lightness. Then I saw the fine striations across each “pill” and the microscopic legs, folded into the central crease. I hastily set the vial down, wiping my hand on my apron, and made another entry in the mental list I had been compiling. For “slaters,” read “woodlice.”

There were a number of more or less harmless substances in Beaton’s jars, as well as several containing dried herbs or extractions that might actually be helpful. I found some of the orrisroot powder and aromatic vinegar that Mrs. Fitz had used to treat Jamie MacTavish’s injuries. Also angelica, wormwood, rosemary, and something labeled STINKING ARAG. I opened this one cautiously, but it proved to be nothing more than the tender tips of fir branches, and a pleasant balsamic fragrance floated out of the unsealed bottle. I left the bottle open and set it on the table to perfume the air in the dark little room as I went on with my inventory.

I discarded jars of dried snails; OIL OF EARTHWORMS—which appeared to be exactly that; VINUM MILLEPEDATUM—millipedes, these crushed to pieces and soaked in wine; POWDER OF EYGYPTIANE MUMMIE—an indeterminate-looking dust, whose origin I thought more likely a silty streambank than a pharaoh’s tomb; PIGEONS BLOOD, ant eggs, a number of dried toads painstakingly packed in moss, and HUMAN SKULL, POWDERED. Whose? I wondered.

It took most of the afternoon to finish my inspections of the cupboard and multidrawered cabinet. When I had finished, there was a great heap of discarded bottles, boxes, and flasks set outside the door of the surgery for disposal, and a much smaller collection of possibly useful items stowed back into the cupboard.

I had considered a large packet of cobwebs for some time, hesitating between the piles. Both Beaton’s Guide and my own dim memories of folk medicine held that spider’s web was efficacious in dressing wounds. While my own inclination was to consider such usage unhygienic in the extreme, my experience with linen bandages by the roadside had shown me the desirability of having something with adhesive as well as absorbent properties for dressings. At last, I set the cobwebs back in the cupboard, resolving to see whether there might be a way of sterilizing them. Not boiling, I thought. Maybe steam would cleanse them without destroying the stickiness?

I rubbed my hands against my apron, considering. I had inventoried almost everything now—except the wooden chest against the wall. I flung back the lid, and recoiled at once from the stench that gusted out.

The chest was the repository of the surgical side of Beaton’s practice. Within were a number of sinister-looking saws, knives, chisels, and other tools looking more suited to building construction than to use on delicate human tissues. The stench apparently derived from the fact that Davie Beaton had seen no particular benefit to cleaning his instruments between uses. I grimaced in distaste at the sight of the dark stains on some of the blades, and slammed shut the lid.

I dragged the chest toward the door, intending to tell Mrs. Fitz that the instruments, once safely boiled, should be distributed to the castle carpenter, if there were such a personage.

A stir behind alerted me, in time to avoid crashing into the person who had just come in. I turned to see two young men, one supporting the other, who was hopping on one foot. The lame foot was bound up in an untidy bundle of rags, stained with fresh blood.

I glanced around, then gestured at the chest, for lack of anything else. “Sit down,” I said. Apparently the new physician of Castle Leoch was now in practice.

8

AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT

I lay on my bed feeling altogether exhausted. Oddly enough, I had quite enjoyed the rummage through the memorabilia of the late Beaton, and treating those few patients, with however meager a resource, had made me feel truly solid and useful once more. Feeling flesh and bone beneath my fingers, taking pulses, inspecting tongues and eyeballs, all the familiar routine, had done much to settle the feeling of hollow panic that had been with me since my fall through the rock. However strange my circumstances, and however out of place I might be, it was somehow very comforting to realize that these were truly other people. Warm-fleshed and hairy, with hearts that could be felt beating and lungs that breathed audibly. Bad-smelling, louse-ridden, and filthy, some of them, but that was nothing new to me. Certainly no worse than conditions in a field hospital, and the injuries were so far reassuringly minor. It was immensely satisfying to be able once again to relieve a pain, reset a joint, repair damage. To take responsibility for the welfare of others made me feel less victimized by the whims of whatever impossible fate had brought me here, and I was grateful to Colum for suggesting it.

Colum MacKenzie. Now there was a strange man. A cultured man, courteous to a fault, and thoughtful as well, with a reserve that all but hid the steely core within. The steel was much more evident in his brother Dougal. A warrior born, that one. And yet, to see them together, it was clear which was the stronger. Colum was a chieftain, twisted legs and all.

Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome. I had never seen a case before, but I had heard it described. Named for its most famous sufferer (who did not yet exist, I reminded myself), it was a degenerative disease of bone and connective tissue. Victims often appeared normal, if sickly, until their early teens, when the long bones of the legs, under the stress of bearing a body upright, began to crumble and collapse upon themselves.

The pasty skin, with its premature wrinkling, was another outward effect of the poor circulation that characterized the disease. Likewise the dryness and pronounced callusing of fingers and toes that I had already noticed. As the legs twisted and bowed, the spine was put under stress, and often twisted as well, causing immense discomfort to the victim. I mentally read back the textbook description to myself, idly smoothing out the tangles of my hair with my fingers. Low white-cell count, increased susceptibility to infection, liable to early arthritis. Because of the poor circulation and the degeneration of connective tissue, victims were invariably sterile, and often impotent as well.

I stopped suddenly, thinking of Hamish. My son, Colum had said, proudly introducing the boy. Mmm, I thought to myself. Perhaps not impotent then. Or perhaps so. But rather fortunate for Letitia that so many of the MacKenzie males resembled each other to such a marked degree.

I was disturbed in these interesting ruminations by a sudden knock on the door. One of the ubiquitous small boys stood without, bearing an invitation from Colum himself. There was to be singing in the Hall, he said, and the MacKenzie would be honored by my presence, if I cared to come down.

I was curious to see Colum again, in light of my recent speculations. So, with a quick glance in the looking glass, and a futile smoothing of my hair, I shut the door behind me and followed my escort through the cold and winding corridors.

The Hall looked different at night, quite festive with pine torches crackling all along the walls, popping with an occasional blue flare of turpentine. The huge fireplace, with its multiple spits and cauldrons, had diminished its activity since the frenzy of supper; now only the one large fire burned on the hearth, sustained by two huge, slow-burning logs, and the spits were folded back into the cavernous chimney.

The tables and benches were still there, but pushed back slightly to allow for a clear space near the hearth; apparently that was to be the center of entertainment, for Colum’s large carved chair was placed to one side. Colum himself was seated in it, a warm rug laid across his legs and a small table with decanter and goblets within easy reach.

Seeing me hesitating in the archway, he beckoned me to his side with a friendly gesture, waving me onto a nearby bench.

“I’m pleased you’ve come down, Mistress Claire,” he said, pleasantly informal. “Gwyllyn will be glad of a new ear for his songs, though we’re always willing to listen.” The MacKenzie chieftain looked rather tired, I thought; the wide shoulders slumped a bit and the premature lines on his face were deeply cut.

I murmured something inconsequential and looked around the hall. People were beginning to drift in, and sometimes out, standing in small groups to chat, gradually taking seats on the benches ranged against the walls.

“I beg your pardon?” I turned, having missed Colum’s words in the growing noise, to find him offering me the decanter, a lovely bell-shaped thing of pale green crystal. The liquid within, seen through the glass, seemed green as the sea-depths, but once poured out it proved to be a beautiful pale-rose color, with the most delicious bouquet. The taste was fully up to the promise, and I closed my eyes in bliss, letting the wine fumes tickle the back of my palate before reluctantly allowing each sip of nectar to trickle down my throat.

“Good, isn’t it?” The deep voice held a note of amusement, and I opened my eyes to find Colum smiling at me in approval.

I opened my mouth to reply, and found that the smooth delicacy of the taste was deceptive; the wine was strong enough to cause a mild paralysis of the vocal cords.

“Won—wonderful,” I managed to get out.

Colum nodded. “Aye, that it is. Rhenish, ye know. You’re not familiar with it?” I shook my head as he tipped the decanter over my goblet, filling the bowl with a pool of glowing rose. He held his own goblet by the stem, turning it before his face so that the firelight lit the contents with dashes of vermilion.

“You know good wine, though,” Colum said, tilting the glass to enjoy the rich fruity scent himself. “But that’s natural, I suppose, with your family French. Or half French, I should say,” he corrected himself with a quick smile. “What part of France do your folk come from?”

I hesitated a moment, then thought, stick to the truth, so far as you can, and answered, “It’s an old connection, and not a close one, but such relatives as I may have there come from the north, near Compiègne.” I was mildly startled to realize that at this point, my relatives were in fact near Compiègne. Stick to the truth, indeed.

“Ah. Never been there yourself, though?”

I tilted the glass, shaking my head as I did so. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the wine’s perfume.

“No,” I said, eyes still closed. “I haven’t met any of my relatives there, either.” I opened my eyes to find him watching me closely. “I told you that.”

He nodded, not at all perturbed. “So ye did.” His eyes were a beautiful soft grey, thickly lashed with black. A very attractive man, Colum MacKenzie, at least down to the waist. My gaze flickered past him to the group nearest the fire, where I could see his wife, Letitia, part of a group of several ladies, all engaged in animated conversation with Dougal MacKenzie. Also a most attractive man, and a whole one.

I pulled my attention back to Colum and found him gazing abstractedly at one of the wall hangings.

“And as I also told you before,” I said abruptly, bringing him out of his momentary inattention, “I’d like to be on my way to France as soon as possible.”

“So ye did,” he said again, pleasantly, and picked up the decanter with a questioning lift of the brow. I held my goblet steady, gesturing at the halfway point to indicate that I wanted only a little, but he filled the delicate hollow nearly to the rim once more.

“Well, as I told you, Mistress Beauchamp,” he said, eyes fixed on the rising wine, “I think ye must be content to bide here a bit, until suitable arrangements can be made for your transport. No need for haste, after all. It’s only the spring of the year, and months before the autumn storms make the Channel crossing chancy.” He raised eyes and decanter together, and fixed me with a shrewd look.

“But if ye’d care to give me the names of your kin in France, I might manage to send word ahead—so they’ll be fettled against your coming, eh?”

Bluff called, I had little choice but to mutter something of the yes-well-perhaps-later variety, and excuse myself hastily on the pretext of visiting the necessary facilities before the singing should start. Game and set to Colum, but not yet match.

My pretext had not been entirely fictitious, and it took me some time, wandering about the darkened halls of the Castle, to find the place I was seeking. Groping my way back, wineglass still in hand, I found the lighted archway to the Hall, but realized on entering that I had reached the lower entrance, and was now at the opposite end of the Hall from Colum. Under the circumstances, this suited me quite well, and I strolled unobtrusively into the long room, taking pains to merge with small groups of people as I worked my way along the wall toward one of the benches.

Casting a look at the upper end of the Hall, I saw a slender man who must be Gwyllyn the bard, judging from the small harp he carried. At Colum’s gesture, a servant hastened up to bring the bard a stool, on which he seated himself and proceeded to tune the harp, plucking lightly at the strings, ear close to the instrument. Colum poured another glass of wine from his own decanter, and with another wave, dispatched it via the servant in the bard’s direction.

“Oh, he called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers threeee,” I sang irreverently under my breath, eliciting an odd look from the girl Laoghaire. She was seated under a tapestry showing a hunter with six elongated and cross-eyed dogs, in erratic pursuit of a single hare.

“Bit of overkill, don’t you think?” I said breezily, waving a hand at it and plumping myself down beside her on the bench.

“Oh! er, aye,” she answered cautiously, edging away slightly. I tried to engage her in friendly conversation, but she answered mostly in monosyllables, blushing and starting when I spoke to her, and I soon gave it up, my attention drawn by the scene at the end of the room.

Harp tuned to his satisfaction, Gwyllyn had brought out from his coat three wooden flutes of varying sizes, which he laid on a small table, ready to hand.

Suddenly I noticed that Laoghaire was not sharing my interest in the bard and his instruments. She had stiffened slightly and was peering over my shoulder toward the lower archway, simultaneously leaning back into the shadows under the tapestry to avoid detection.

Following the direction of her gaze, I spotted the tall, red-haired figure of Jamie MacTavish, just entering the Hall.

“Ah! The gallant hero! Fancy him, do you?” I asked the girl at my side. She shook her head frantically, but the brilliant blush staining her cheeks was answer enough.

“Well, we’ll see what we can do, shall we?” I said, feeling expansive and magnanimous. I stood up and waved cheerily to attract his attention.

Catching my signal, the young man made his way through the crowd, smiling. I didn’t know what might have passed between them in the courtyard, but I thought his manner in greeting the girl was warm, if still formal. His bow to me was slightly more relaxed; after the forced intimacy of our relations to date, he could hardly treat me as a stranger.

A few tentative notes from the upper end of the hall signaled an imminent beginning to the entertainment, and we hastily took our places, Jamie seating himself between Laoghaire and myself.

Gwyllyn was an insignificant-looking man, light-boned and mousy-haired, but you didn’t see him once he began to sing. He only served as a focus, a place for the eyes to rest while the ears enjoyed themselves. He began with a simple song, something in Gaelic with a strong rhyming chime to the lines, accompanied by the merest touch of his harp strings, so that each plucked string seemed by its vibration to carry the echo of the words from one line to the next. The voice was also deceptively simple. You thought at first there was nothing much to it—pleasant, but without much strength. And then you found that the sound went straight through you, and each syllable was crystal clear, whether you understood it or not, echoing poignantly inside your head.

The song was received with a warm surge of applause, and the singer launched at once into another, this time in Welsh, I thought. It sounded like a very tuneful sort of gargling to me, but those around me seemed to follow well enough; doubtless they had heard it before.

During a brief pause for retuning, I asked Jamie in a low voice, “Has Gwyllyn been at the Castle long?” Then, remembering, I said, “Oh, but you wouldn’t know, would you? I’d forgotten you were so new here yourself.”

“I’ve been here before,” he answered, turning his attention to me. “Spent a year at Leoch when I was sixteen or so, and Gwyllyn was here then. Colum’s fond of his music, ye see. He pays Gwyllyn well to stay. Has to; the Welshman would be welcome at any laird’s hearth where he chose to roost.”

“I remember when you were here, before.” It was Laoghaire, still blushing pinkly, but determined to join the conversation. Jamie turned his head to include her, smiling slightly.

“Do ye, then? You canna have been more than seven or eight yourself. I’d not think I was much to see then, so as to be remembered.” Turning politely to me, he said, “Do ye have the Welsh, then?”

“Well, I do remember, though,” Laoghaire said, pursuing it. “You were, er, ah…I mean…do ye not remember me, from then?” Her hands fiddled nervously with the folds of her skirt. She bit her nails, I saw.

Jamie’s attention seemed distracted by a group of people across the room, arguing in Gaelic about something.

“Ah?” he said, vaguely. “No, I dinna think so. Still,” he said with a smile, pulling his attention suddenly back to her, “I wouldna be likely to. A young burke of sixteen’s too taken up wi’ his own grand self to pay much heed to what he thinks are naught but a rabble of snot-nosed bairns.”

I gathered he had meant this remark to be deprecatory to himself, rather than his listener, but the effect was not what he might have hoped. I thought perhaps a brief pause to let Laoghaire recover her self-possession was in order, and broke in hastily with, “No, I don’t know any Welsh at all. Do you have any idea what it is he was saying?”

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